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Words with multiple meanings

We are normally comfortable with the fact that a word, at any given time, may have multiple meanings. For example, club can mean “a heavy stick” or “a group of people who meet regularly.” This word means different things in the compounds “country club” and “golf club.” In order to avoid confusion, we make sure our context is clear. It is often surprising to find that commonly used words have completely changed their meaning over time.

Our adjective nice which currently means ‘pleasing or agreeable in nature’ used to mean ‘foolish’ or ‘silly.’* The word came into English from an Old French word that meant ‘foolish.’ The Old French word came from Latin nescius meaning ‘ignorant.’ In fact the Oxford English Dictionary references this heritage by listing the now obsolete noun nice meaning “a foolish or simple person.” Long before our word pretty used to mean ‘pleasingly attractive,’ it actually meant “cunning” or “clever” in Old English and then later developed the meaning “skilful” or “clever.” Meat is another good example of a word that has undergone a significant change in meaning. Today when we say meat we are primarily referring to animal flesh, but the Middle English word mete came from an Old English word that meant “food.” This narrowing of a once broader meaning is not uncommon. As farfetched as it may seem today, in the 1300’s the word girl in English meant “a child of either sex” or “a young person.” It was used in written English as late as 1475 with this meaning. Interestingly, the word for girl in Latin puella once meant “little boy.”

Manufacture, a verb that we now associate with industrial, large-scale production, was originally used to designate something made by hand. For those of you who remember your Latin, the word is etymologically straightforward: manu means “by hand” and “facture” is a Middle English word that originally derives from the Latin verb facere ‘to make or to do.’ Today, of course, a manufactured item is very different from something made by hand. The word artificial stands in opposition to the word natural. We are wary of artificial flavors and often turned off by artificial or “false” pretenses or kindnesses. You may be interested to learn that artificial comes from Latin and used to mean “made or contrived by art.”

Changes in meaning are fascinating but certainly not limited to the far past. We often employ words to convey a meaning that is not always found in the dictionary. Take for example the word enormity. If you ask most people what this word means they will tell you that it means “of great size” and would understand “the enormity of the situation” to mean that the extent or degree is quite large and possibly so large that it is almost beyond control. I encourage you to look this word up in an English dictionary. It may surprise you to learn that it actually means “the quality of passing all moral bounds, excessive wickedness or monstrous offense.” A study of this word’s etymology shows us the connection between the Latin meaning and the meaning we find in the dictionary. It comes from Latin ex norma ‘out of the norm.’ Our adjective enormous also derives from Latin ex norma and used to mean ‘very wicked’ although that meaning is now obsolete and we now use enormous to mean “of a very great size.” The way we use “enormous” is influencing the way we use “enormity.”

Another example of a word that is currently being “reassigned” or more narrowly focused than its historically developed meaning is the word morbid. Morbid is from Latin morbidus ‘diseased’ which in turn was derived from the Latin noun morbus ‘disease.’ According to most dictionaries the first meaning for morbid is “of or relating to, or caused by disease.” A second meaning is “psychologically unhealthy.” If you listen to or read examples of how this word is now used you will find that it almost always refers to a psychologically unhealthy preoccupation with death and is no longer commonly used to refer to disease. So we hear talk of people with a “morbid fascination for death” or we tell somebody “That’s morbid” when she or he refers uncomfortably or a little too easily to death. This is a narrowing of meaning that is currently in progress and may not be documented in traditional dictionaries for many years.

The word personable provides us with another convincing example. We often use this word to describe someone’s personality. When someone has been interviewed for a job and found to be personable, we understand this to mean that she or he has a nice personality. Most of us would never use this word to describe someone’s physical attractiveness. It would not even be legal from an equal employment opportunity perspective to hire someone based on the fact that you found him or her to be more good looking than another candidate. This, however, is the primary meaning of the word personable as found in most dictionaries. It refers mainly to someone’s physical appearance and was used this way as early as 1435 in English. It was not until 1953 that it was used in English to mean “a likeable manner or behavior.” Although most of us would use personable this way today, traditional dictionaries do not recognize this change in meaning. Several dictionaries even state that this particular use is considered incorrect and is therefore discouraged. Personable comes from the Latin word persona which in turn is probably from the Etruscan word phersu meaning ‘mask.’ While our dictionaries may presently disregard the popular meaning, one day in the future the popular meaning will become the dictionary meaning and then who knows? The people may just decide to reassign the word personable another meaning. Changes in meaning have been going on for thousands of years and not even dictionaries have been able to keep this from happening.

* Definitions are from The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition, 1985 and the Oxford English Dictionary.

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.